Jacob and Esau: From Rivalry to Reconciliation

Posted on: Friday November 22, 2013

by Michael Pont, Marlboro Jewish Center, Marlboro, NJ

This d'var Torah was originally given at the Northern New Jersey Region of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs Man of the Year/Youth of the Year Dinner, November 6, 2013.

This week’s parashah, Va-yishlah, includes a moving reunion between Jacob and Esau. The brothers were estranged for twenty years, after Jacob manipulated Esau, and their father Isaac, in order to win the honors usually bestowed upon the first born. Jacob reached out to Esau saying, “Let’s reconcile.” Esau agreed, and said he will bring 400 men along. Jacob was terrified, probably because he could not see his brother except as a vengeful, aggressive murderer.

Two weeks ago I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary for a two day conference entitled Clergy 2.0. Forty three colleagues and I experienced the power of personal stories as a way to build relationships. We learned that in order to really know a person and what drives them, it helps to understand their history, including their significant life experiences, and to know about their heroes.

With this as a backdrop, let’s return to the biblical tale. The night before Jacob reunited with Esau, a mysterious being met Jacob, and they wrestled. Who was this shadowy figure? I think it was Esau himself. Let’s imagine the conversation: “How could you cheat me and dad like that?! Do you realize the pain I’ve felt these years, and how much I’ve resented you?!” Confronted with his brother’s anguish, Jacob realized that Esau was not just someone in the way, someone who had to be stepped on in order to reach an objective. Esau was flesh and blood, with hopes and dreams of his own, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe this is why Jacob proclaimed that seeing his brother is like seeing God. For the first time, Jacob didn’t perceive Esau as an adversary. Rather, he came to love Esau as a brother.

We have dozens of interactions every day. As we look at the other individual or group, do we only think of what we want, be it answers, assistance, money, affection, or praise? Is the other there solely for our benefit, to serve our needs!? Or, can we take the time to be open to their concerns? At the reunion, Jacob learned that his brother was not an obstacle to overcome, but a man who missed his sibling.

Part of the FJMC mission is to empower us to form meaningful relationships. I’ve facilitated and been a part of Hearing Men’s Voices programs. We bonded and allowed that we can be vulnerable, which was liberating. Keruv seminars emphasize that anyone interested in Judaism should be embraced and encouraged, but not seen as someone who needs to be converted or pressured to fit a certain mold.

My prayer for all of us is that we may strive to be like Jacob and Esau, who transformed their relationship from antagonistic to loving; from one in which they were self-absorbed to one in which they had compassion. Kein y'hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

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